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The New American Dream: Reforming Higher Education to Promote Social Mobility

“The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (1931)

James Truslow Adams coined the term “American Dream” during the Great Depression. Despite soaring unemployment, rampant homelessness, and mass despair, Adams envisioned a country ripe with opportunity for people with gumption, grit, and hard work. In other words, if you try hard enough, you can be socially mobile and you can enjoy a better standard of living than your parents did despite any disadvantages conferred by heritage. More than 80 years later, getting a college education is hailed as a ticket to the American Dream. But is it really? The truth is that some U.S. universities are much more successful than others at promoting social mobility among the students that need it most.

It’s no surprise that income increases with education, but before digging into the common features of colleges which best help their students advance economically, there are several troubling trends in the U.S. that have compromised Americans’ ability to succeed.

First, in a 2013 Hamilton Project policy memo, the Brookings Institution stated that family incomes had declined for a third of American children during the preceding decades; that there were stark achievement and opportunity gaps between low- and high-income students; and that countries with high income inequality such as the U.S. have low social mobility. To that last point, the Congressional Budget Office (Aug. 2016) recently reported that the top ten percent of families—those with at least $942,000 in marketable wealth (i.e., assets minus non-mortgage debt)—hold 76 percent of the wealth, and the bottom half of Americans hold only one percent. The CBO also revealed that families in the top ten percent saw their wealth increase by 54 percent between 1989 and 2013, while those in the bottom 25 percent experienced a six percent decrease.

Second, white families hold a disproportionate share of the wealth. The Urban Institute (2015) reported that as of 2013, white families had an average of seven times the wealth of African American families, and six times that of Hispanic families.

Third, student loan debt sits at around $1.4 trillion and recently overtook credit cards as the leading source of debt among Americans. There are 44.2 million people with federal or private loans for education, a disproportionate number of whom are African Americans.

Lastly, while poor students typically fare as well as their wealthy classmates at top tier colleges, there are relatively few of them in traditionally elite or Ivy League institutions. Other schools such as Stony Brook and Baruch College, however, have greater numbers of lower-income students and have proven very successful in helping their students advance economically. As proof of point, three prominent professors of economics—Dr. Raj Chetty of Stanford, Dr. John Friedman of Brown, and Dr. Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard—designed the Equality of Opportunity Project. Its main objective is “to develop scalable policy solutions that will empower families to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes.” These researchers found that during the past 50 years, the proportion of children who were able to earn more than their parents actually dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent. In efforts to combat this trend, they created Mobility Report Cards to pinpoint colleges that admit relatively more students from lower-income families who end up with high incomes.

This article aims to identify what makes schools such as Stony Brook University and Baruch College so successful in promoting social mobility among students. In three exclusive interviews with eminent sociology professors from these institutions, we explore what makes these campuses so fertile for prosperity and what other schools should do to emulate their success.

Interviews with Professors from Universities with Socially Mobile Students

“I teach race and ethnicity; I teach urban sociology; I teach classes on the legacy of systemic racism. If I’m doing my part, it’s a salve on the wounds of friction when non-traditional students enter into the race.” Dr. Gregory Snyder, Baruch College

In April 2017, conducted three telephone interviews with sociology professors from Stony Brook University and Baruch College with the belief that people in this academic discipline can offer unique insights about the policies, student demographics, and other features which made these schools among the best according to the EOP Mobility Report Card. In sum, these schools had relatively more students from the bottom quintile of family incomes who succeeded in reaching the upper quintile after graduation. These interviews have been reconstructed from notes and edited for length and clarity.

Conclusions: How to Promote Social Mobility in Higher Ed and Beyond

While there’s evidence that the proverbial “American Dream” is increasingly out of reach for many due to the increasing wealth gap and skyrocketing student debt, there’s much hope in the insights of the these three renowned sociology professors. Advanced, detailed policy proposals are beyond the scope of this article, but there are several simple solutions gleaned from the wisdom of these interviewees and others (e.g., Urban Institute) committed to bettering the lives of Americans:

De-emphasize admissions criteria such as the SAT. Dr. Schwartz pointed out that the SAT not only doesn’t predict a student’s college readiness, but there’s also evidence of racial and gender biases in SAT questions, not to mention the disadvantages of ESL students. There have been other studies showing that strong SAT scores correlate with only one factor: high family income. In short, the test doesn’t measure what it’s supposed to and therefore it should not feature prominently in the admissions process.

Decrease (or eliminate) tuition at public universities. All three professors emphasized the importance of making a college education affordable, particularly for students from lower income families. If countries such as Brazil, Slovenia, Egypt, Argentina, and others can afford to make college tuition-free, so too can the U.S.—the wealthiest country in the world.

Increase state and federal subsidies to colleges. As Dr. Schwartz pointed out, there’s been a drastic decrease in government funds to education, even as the overall wealth of the U.S. has increased substantially. It’s imperative to reverse this trend as a disproportionate share of increasing costs for education have fallen to students.

Improve the way student debt is structured. Dr. Snyder mentioned that compared to students taking out loans, he gets a more favorable interest rate for his mortgage and gets to build equity. Since having a college education is the preeminent path to social mobility, it should be made as easy and painless as possible for students.

Create feeder community colleges or special admissions programs for motivated students from lower-income families. Dr. Joseph mentioned that Stony Brook has a partnership with Suffolk Community College which helps students ease the transition into the university. Not only is community college more affordable, but it also helps prepare students for the rigors of a four-year school.

Implement policies which allow lower income students to seamlessly finish their degrees. Dr. Schwartz described a problematic trend with lower income students: many of them are forced to take gaps in their studies in order to make money to support themselves. This often results in a loss in momentum and many of these students either don’t return or take much longer to finish their degrees than would be expected. Whether its increasing financial aid, expanding need-based grants and scholarships, or implementing other measures, it’s crucial for colleges to support lower income students in the timely completion of their studies.

Create support programs for first generation college students. Dr. Joseph stressed the importance of having adequate support on campus for students who are the first in their families to go to college. These efforts can help fill not only academic needs such as tutoring and internship placements, but they also can help fill the cultural capital gap. In other words, they can teach study skills, language usage, mannerisms, and other non-academic markers—usually imparted by families or communities—which nonetheless influence a student’s ability to succeed. In that vein, Dr. Snyder stated poignantly, “[Students] have to learn the language of power as they attempt to dismantle it.”

Colleges need to recognize that having cultural, racial, and economic diversity among students is an asset. All three professors mentioned the unique diversity in their campuses, which reflects the multivariate demographics of New York City. As research from the Harvard Business Review (Nov. 2016) found, non-homogenous groups are smarter than homogenous ones because they offer a wealth of new ideas and perspectives into workplaces as well as academic environments.

Stop treating colleges like private corporations. With soaring college costs and student loan debt, increasingly generous administrative (i.e., CEO) pay, and an eye on cutting costs by any means necessary, universities have increasingly been run as private companies rather than public institutions for the greater good and civic edification.

These are only a few of the changes which would empower more students from lower income families to attend college and complete their degrees. There’s no shortage of activists, policy proposals, scholarly journal articles, and other resources which aim to expand access to higher education and promote social mobility; rather there’s been a dismaying lack of investment in public U.S. colleges in recent decades. This has led to tuition increases and insupportable student debt, particularly for the students most in need. We all should ensure that access to higher education remains one of our nation’s top priorities if we hope to remain competitive in the world and foster healthy, civic-minded citizens.

The New American Dream: Reforming Higher Education to Promote Social Mobility

Jocelyn Blore

After graduating from UC Berkeley, Jocelyn Blore traveled the world for five years as a freelance writer. She lived in Japan, Brazil, Nepal and Argentina. In 2015, she took an 11-month road trip across the US, finally settling into Eugene, Oregon. She currently serves as the managing editor for several websites on distance-based programs in nursing, engineering and other disciplines. When Jocelyn isn’t writing about schools or interviewing professors, she enjoys satirizing global absurdities on her blog, Blore’s Razor.